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Track Smack: Edwards can contend, but is he champ material?

May 26, 2011, , NASCAR.com

A Cup win for Ragan, Nationwide regular round out list of topics up for debate

1. It's Track Smack, Queen City edition. Carl Edwards goes for the Charlotte sweep this week in the 600. What are his odds of getting it? And would such a feat finally solidify him as the top contender for the Sprint Cup title?

Mark Aumann: I think Carl's spot at the top is already pretty solid. The biggest issue with trying to handicap the 600 -- rather than the All-Star Race -- is guessing who will hit the right setup as the track cools, especially if Sunday is as sweltering as it's been the past two days.

Jill Erwin: At this point in the season, I'm not willing to bet against Carl. However, I'd feel a lot better about his chances had he not gone all banzai in his burnout and torn up that car from the All-Star Race. As for his contender status, DC2 and I agreed in this space last week that Carl is and has been a legitimate contender.

David Caraviello: As strong as Carl was in the All-Star Race, Roush hasn't won a points event at Charlotte in forever, so I don't know if you can exactly put Edwards up there as the favorite this weekend. Now, for the championship? That's a completely different story. Roughly one-third through the season, the dude has barely made a misstep. I know Jimmie Johnson is still out there, but right now Carl has to be considered the favorite based on everything he's done to this point.

Mark Aumann: The last Ford to win a points race at Charlotte? Mark Martin in 2002. I was stunned to find out that someone like Greg Biffle, who seems to be so good at intermediate tracks, hasn't won there. There's just not that discernible connection between a sprint and a marathon. Speaking of marathons, how's the running coming along, David?

David Caraviello: I may have risen above start-and-park. Now, being the favorite and actually winning the thing are two completely different deals. Kevin Harvick was the favorite for most of last year, and we saw what happened in the Chase. Ditto Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon a few years back. Something seems to change in the fall. That No. 48 starts coming like a shark in the water. Whether Carl can hold him off in money time just depends on how fast he can swim.

Charlotte


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Jill Erwin: I'm with David. I'm not anointing him the champ by any stretch, as so much can happen between the carefree days of spring and the pressure-packed countdown to Homestead. But Carl's never really been one to lose his way, so I'll work under the assumption he's not going to forget how to drive and assume he'll be there, at least in the hunt, to the end.

Mark Aumann: Make it three. No reason to hand Edwards the trophy tomorrow. At the same time, he's placed himself solidly in the "guy with best shot at knocking off Jimmie Johnson" role this fall.

Jill Erwin: Hmmm ... not much Smacking going on if we all agree he's running well and is a championship contender. We need Jarrod Breeze in here, pronto!

David Caraviello: But going back to the Roush camp, that's a stunning void at Charlotte. You have to go through like 10 different drivers and a whole bunch of individual starts to get back to 2002. Amazing one of the best teams in NASCAR hasn't won at its "hometown" track in nearly a decade.

Mark Aumann: And before you think that Charlotte's been a Chevrolet stranglehold, there have been five wins for Dodge and one for Toyota over that timeframe. A web of mystery at Charlotte?

David Caraviello: It's so difficult to pick a favorite in the 600. The setup challenges with the day-to-night deal can completely change the complexion of the race as we get toward the end, and there is always the possibility of fuel mileage. It's a long race where a lot can go wrong and a bunch of strange things can happen. There may be no more difficult event for a favorite to win.

Mark Aumann: Kasey Kahne has been running well and he's shown he can win there. And perhaps here's a spot for somebody like Mark Martin to capitalize on an opportunity. Just so many variables that affect the racing throughout the evening.

David Caraviello: Yeah, people forget that Johnson has lost his stranglehold over the place since it was resurfaced, and that Kasey Kahne is as close to a master of the joint as we have right now. Kurt Busch swept both events at Charlotte last May, but given what we've seen from them in recent weeks, it would seem a surprise if they could contend this time around.

Jill Erwin: Absolutely agreed. I have a gut feeling (not much of a reach here) that if Kyle Busch can keep his nose clean, he's got a real shot at it. He and Dave Rogers are so good, and I just think seeing Busch take a bow after that monstrosity of a race is as likely as anything. Kyle's finished no worse than eighth since the fall 2007 race. Wow.

Mark Aumann: Hey, look at Erwin tossing out the stats like she owns the place!

David Caraviello: And I know, because of the prominence of the track and its intermediate nature, people like to draw conclusions for the rest of the year based on what happens during two weeks in Charlotte. This is our first big milepost toward the championship. But our last four 600 winners have been Kurt Busch, David Reutimann, Kahne and Casey Mears. Not a champion in the bunch. So maybe the importance of this week, in the long term, can be a bit overstated. Though with all those intermediate tracks in the Chase, it's hard to resist the temptation. You never know ...

Mark Aumann: You know who hasn't been very good there? Dale Earnhardt Jr. I think his best finish since the 2008 Coca-Cola 600 has been 22nd.

Jill Erwin: Reuty was a rain situation, and Casey was a fuel-mileage deal, right? So I throw those two out automatically. And Kurt was just untouchable last year at this time. How the mighty have fallen. I do think there are lessons to be taken, just because of the glut of intermediate tracks in the Chase (DC2 types too quickly).

David Caraviello: You and your pesky facts. They're getting in the way of my argument!

2. By winning at Iowa, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finally snapped the Cup driver stranglehold on the Nationwide Series. What are the chances of Nationwide regulars making it two in a row this weekend at Charlotte?

Jill Erwin: Is a negative number an option?

Mark Aumann: Slim and none. And Slim left town.

David Caraviello: Yeah, slim and none. Slim is Kyle Busch being back in the No. 18 car this weekend after taking Iowa off. None is Carl Edwards racing in a Nationwide event without having to fly back and forth halfway across the country to do it. A one-week respite, I fear. The big boys are back and well-rested and ready to push the Nationwide regulars around again.

Jill Erwin: There have been two Nationwide regulars to win in the past 62 races. Two. The last before Stenhouse and Allgaier last spring at Bristol? Mike Bliss two years ago this weekend. At Charlotte. Watch out for the No. 19 this weekend!

Mark Aumann: Charlotte is such a difficult track, because the conditions can change from lap to lap. And it really comes down to someone with a lot of experience who can reach back into the memory banks and apply some knowledge to the situation at a moment's notice. It's just not a place where you can stomp on the gas and go fast. You have to think your way around the place. Not to say there aren't Nationwide veterans, but especially with the new chassis, it seems like the Cup guys have a decided advantage. I think a lot of the Nationwide-only operations are just starting to scratch the surface as to how to make these cars handle. I think they're catching up but just not at the same pace.

Nationwide Standings

(Top-10 through Iowa)
Pos.DriverPts.Behind
2R. Sorenson411-7
3R. Stenhouse Jr.410-8
4J. Allgaier398-20
5J. Leffler375-43
6A. Almirola366-52
7K. Wallace355-63
8S. Wallace315-103
9B. Scott303-115
10J. Wise289-129

David Caraviello: Here's one for our stat-man: How far do you have to go back to find the last time Nationwide regulars won consecutive races?

Jill Erwin: I'll leave that to History Man Aumann. I'll say this: Allgaier has been in the top 15 in his past four Charlotte starts after a crash in his debut. Not saying he'll win, but on top of his strong run last week, I wouldn't be surprised to see him in the top five.

Mark Aumann: Looks like Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano in 2008 (Nashville/Kentucky). That would have been before either had a full-time Cup ride.

Jill Erwin: Dangit. I just found that and was going to come back here and shock you both with my statistical genius. I'll tell you this, slightly off topic: That weekend when Logano won Kentucky and Junior won at Michigan? I said "That's NASCAR's dream weekend." Sadly, hasn't really gotten us anywhere.

David Caraviello: Goodness, that's reaching a ways back, Mark. Translation: Odds of it happening again this year are very small. Oh, and our aforementioned Charlotte ace Kasey Kahne is in this Charlotte Nationwide event, too. Along with Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. That sounds like much of your top 10 in the finishing order right there.

Jill Erwin: Sadly, you're probably right. I'd love to see a Nationwide-only guy come up and really take charge, but the uphill battle is so strong. The ones who have the same equipment as Cup guys face such an experience shortage, and the ones who don't have that equipment? Well, good luck boys.

David Caraviello: Which is too bad, because it's fun watching these Nationwide guys mix it up a bit. It's like a surprise when they're up front in contention for the win. It was great seeing a guy like Stenhouse, who nearly lost his ride last year, break through. It was cool seeing Kenny Wallace get a top 10. And I know he's technically a Cup interloper, I was happy to see Michael McDowell get a top 10, because of all he's done to try and stay in the sport. Now, it's back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Jill Erwin: You two really bonded in that RV, huh, Caraviello?

By the Numbers


It's been a busy past few days about and around Charlotte: All-Star weekend, Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and now the Coca-Cola 600. By the Numbers ties it all together.

David Caraviello: What happens in the motorhome stays in the motorhome.

Mark Aumann: With the choose-a-series rule and the new chassis, I think the Nationwide Series is poised for the long term, even if things seem decidedly one-sided right now.

David Caraviello: So Mark, what you're saying is, you think these are some growing pains that will eventually work themselves out? That maybe we'll see more Nationwide-only guys win races in the future?

Mark Aumann: I think that once the Nationwide-based teams start to get a better handle on the new chassis and what it takes to go fast and turn, we'll see a gradual narrowing of the gap between the top teams. Whether that's just a theory or not, I don't know. It doesn't really explain away the past couple of seasons.

David Caraviello: No, but it gives you some hope that we'll eventually see some leveling of the playing field. Was Elliott Sadler already committed to a full championship run in the Nationwide series before the exclusionary criteria? Maybe, but you have to think it helps the odds of having a field better equipped to stand on its own against all these Cup guys. That's in theory, at least. Practice is often something else altogether.

Jill Erwin: Mark, with all due respect, your theory is hogwash. It may narrow, but it will never be a level playing field. And I'm not sure NASCAR wants it to be. I think the officials want a difference in series, hence the points system, but they don't want a Nationwide Series where the biggest threats to win in a given week are Michael McDowell and Blake Koch. No offense to either one.

Mark Aumann: But I think they'd be happier if it were one of the Turner guys, or perhaps Elliott Sadler, rather than a steady procession of Gibbs-Roush Cup guys.

Jill Erwin: I disagree. I think they're fine with a Turner guy or Sadler winning the title. But they know the fans in the stands on any given week are far more invested in Kyle and Carl and Brad and Joey than they are in Jason or Justin or Reed or Elliott.

David Caraviello: That's the great conundrum of the Nationwide series. It needs the big Cup guys to secure sponsorship and sell tickets, but it's not supposed to be Cup Lite.

Jill Erwin: It's not supposed to be, but it is. And good luck getting that genie back in the bottle without some big time backlash.

David Caraviello: Then again, years ago, the old Busch Series got along just fine with Jason Keller, Randy Lajoie, Jeff Green and others making a living as full-timers. Those were guys with their own fans bases and own identities, and it all came solely from what is now the Nationwide tour.

Mark Aumann: And there was a time when they raced at Hickory and Orange County and Myrtle Beach and those races didn't necessarily get televised. You can't sell names and not deliver them.

Jill Erwin: I love how any topic about the Nationwide Series eventually gets to this point. It's a fact!

David Caraviello: It's a fact that some of those old tracks that once hosted Busch standalones had holes in the grandstand boards that could swallow the front end of Carl Edwards' car. Selfishly, I think I like it better the way it is now.

3. David Ragan won the All-Star preliminary event and placed eighth in the big show. Is he the top candidate to add to the long list of drivers who have won their first premier-level points event in Charlotte?

Jill Erwin: I can answer this in one word, but it's not really the point of this exercise. However, the answer is no.

David Caraviello: It's just like what we discussed earlier -- strange things can happen in the Cola-Cola 600. It's such a different animal of a race, with the day-to-night thing, and the setup challenges, and the possibility of rain, and the specter of fuel mileage, that who knows. And now throw this whole tire strategy thing into it. Who knows who's going to win it. I wouldn't be shocked if Kyle Busch did. I wouldn't shocked if A.J. Allmendinger did, either.

Mark Aumann: And I'm surprised David Ragan hasn't won somewhere before this, especially after his rookie season. I just didn't think he'd struggle this much, even though he's been more competitive in 2011.

Jill Erwin: I'd take A.J. Allmendinger over David Ragan.

Mark Aumann: Well, if Joe Lee Johnson can win this race, anybody can. (There's my obscure driver reference of the week.)

David Caraviello: Educate us please, Professor Aumann.

Jill Erwin: Oh, do not get him started on obscure drivers. We'll be here all night, and I have cats at home waiting for me.

Mark Aumann: Johnson won the 1959 NASCAR Convertible Series championship. And because CMS had series of construction delays, president Curtis Turner had to delay the inaugural World 600 for several weeks. Even then, the asphalt didn't cure in time, and huge chunks of it came up and damaged several cars. Jack Smith was on his way to the win when his fuel tank was ruptured by debris, handing the lead to Johnson. There's your history lesson, boys and girls.

David Caraviello: Of course. I think Joe Menzer covered that event.

Jill Erwin: Not if it wasn't an NFL game. Did you know he covered the NFL? And I'm sure Jeff Gordon can feel Jack Smith's pain.

Mark Aumann: Yep, history tends to repeat itself.

David Caraviello: Back on topic. If this were Texas, or Michigan, or some other big intermediate track where Roush has a pretty good track record, I'd say yeah, sure, Ragan has a chance. But we've already mentioned that Roush cars haven't won a points race at Charlotte since 2002. Ragan has been more competitive than his stats may indicate over the past year and a half or so, but I still think it's unlikely that he'd be the drought-snapper for a team that also features Edwards, Matt Kenseth, and Greg Biffle.

Jill Erwin: I'm really coming across as a Ragan-hater, and I'm nothing of the sort. I think he's a good guy, and a solid driver. He's come a long way since his "dart without feathers" days early in his career. And while the Coke 600 is long enough to lead to some wacky finishes, it's also long enough to require a driver who can handle it. And I haven't seen that from him yet.

David Caraviello: But then again -- go back to the past four 600 winners. Busch wasn't a surprise, but only because he had won the week before. But that isn't the most likely bunch of winners, either. Yes, weather and fuel mileage intervened in a few of those. But this is Charlotte, in the springtime, and it's the longest race in all of major motorsports, and strange stuff can happen. So I'm not going to dismiss Ragan out of hand. No way.

Mark Aumann: The strategy for the 600 is to stay in contention for the first two-thirds of the race, then worry about track position and handling in the last 100 or so laps. And again, because the track can change so much from day to night, it's really a crapshoot. Or a hogwashing.

David Caraviello: Shoot, if Trevor Bayne can win the Daytona 500 and Regan Smith can win the Southern 500, then David Ragan can absolutely win the Coca-Cola 600. Again, I don't think it's likely. But this is a strange year. This can be a strange race. Stranger things have happened. Just ask Joe Lee Johnson.

Mark Aumann: Well, he died in 2005. But I get the general idea.

Jill Erwin: Ah. So long as Trevor Bayne makes an appearance in Smack, I'm good. And let's not forget, Bayne's victory came at least in part thanks to David Ragan. Full circle!

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.